Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

History as Myth Buster

Jul 17, 2013

There is so much to ponder in Richard Evans's essay that appeared on the Guardian's website last weekend that I hardly know where to begin.

Evans, who is a professor of modern history at Cambridge and author of several books about Nazi Germany, was responding to the latest attempt by the education secretary, Michael Gove, to come up with a reformed curriculum for British schools. Evans is particularly interested in the history curriculum, an earlier draft of which, he writes, was greeted with "near universal derision from the entire historical profession."

So, what does Evans's essay have to say to any Canucks who are interested in how history is being taught in our schools? Right off, I can think of three things.

One. Evans eloquently warns against the pitfalls of a highly nationalistic approach to history, the "great things we have done together" school. The purpose of history, he writes, is NOT "to impart a patriotic sense of national identity through the uncritical hero-worship of great men and women." History is not a consensus-building exercise; quite the reverse. In a phrase (and the phrase belongs to Evans): "History isn't a myth-making discipline, it's a myth-busting discipline."

Which is a useful thing for Canadians to remember (I'm looking at you, Prime Minister) as we set about commemorating a series of our own historical high points leading up to the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017.

Secondly, with all the anniversaries of World War One coming up, Evans tries to take the air out of the triumphalist interpretations of the war. In his view, no one really "won" the war. It was a catastrophe, the results of which poisoned European affairs for decades afterwards. Winning and losing seem beside the point.

And thirdly, how refreshing it is to eavesdrop on a public debate about history. Here in Canada the subject hardly seems to come up, and when it does, as it has recently with the Harper government's sudden interest, we are more likely to argue about who has the right to take part in the discussion than about the subject itself.

I am thinking of the dustup over the parliamentary heritage committee's decision to review significant aspects of Canadian history. "They can't do that!" was the almost universal harrumph. I know that the provinces have jurisdiction over education, but is this really an excuse to say that a national government has nothing to contribute to the discussion? 

I think the best sesquicentennial project of all would be a no-holds-barred, everyone included, discussion of the national past. Instead of Mr. Harper's Conservatives telling us what is important (the War of 1812, the monarchy, yadda, yadda, yadda), why not ask, um, "the people," or at least people with an interest in the subject.

If you want us to care about our history, start by asking us what we think.